Comet ISON dramatically brightens: How to spot it in the sky

Highlighting just how unpredictable comets can be, Comet ISON experienced an outburst this week, brightened significantly and becoming visible to the naked eye a few days ahead of what was expected.

The NASA Comet ISON Observing Campaign (CIOC) website reported:

The past 48-hours have been rather exciting, to say the least. Two days ago we reported that 'something different' appeared to be happening with comet ISON, and that we were seeing several anecdotal reports that maybe the comet was experiencing an outburst. Well those reports were not wrong, and comet C/2012 S1 (ISON) has suddenly become a truly beautiful comet!
Comet ISON's brightness appears to be around two orders of magnitude brighter now, with reports of visual magnitude in the region of +5 to +6. For those with very dark skies, this now makes it a naked eye object, and even for those in urban environments it is readily visible as a fuzzy green blob about half an hour before sunrise in the south eastern skies.

Amid all the astronomers and astronomy buffs here on Earth, scientists at NASA are gearing up for Monday and Tuesday of next week, when ISON and another comet, 2P/Encke, cross the orbit of Mercury. This will put them within range of the MESSENGER probe, so they can get a good close-up look at both comets:

[ More Geekquinox: ‘Gravity’-like space collisions will eventually cut off our access to space ]

Comet ISON's behaviour has been very unpredictable so far, proving Canadian astronomer David H. Levy's quote: "Comets are like cats; they have tails, and they do precisely what they want." Astronomers have plotted its path, so we know that much about it, but as far as what's next for the comet, that's anyone's guess. This brightening could simply be "that ISON has realized it's a near-Sun comet (soon to be a sungrazer) and is beginning to 'turn on' accordingly," wrote Karl Battams on the CIOC blog. However, he also points out that it's possible ISON's nucleus has fragmented, and that would seriously diminish its chances of surviving its journey around the sun.

So, get out and enjoy the comet now, and over the next week, because there's the possibility it may be your last chance!

(Photo courtesy: Jerry Lodriguss, used with permission)

Geek out with the latest in science and weather.
Follow @ygeekquinox on Twitter!